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Breaking the Waves

Review by Eddie Cockrell


Written and Directed by Lars von Trier

Starring Emily Watson,
Stellan Skarsgård, Katrin Cartlidge,
Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier,
Adrian Rawlins, Jonathan Hackett,
Sandra Voe.

Anchored by an extraordinary leading performance by Emily Watson, making a film debut of ferocious passion and mesmerizing intensity, Breaking the Waves is the fifth feature film from director Lars von Trier, whose Zentropa was a solid art-house hit a few years back. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, Breaking the Waves has cemented the director's international reputation as a filmmaker of natural, prodigious talent. Should the magical spell woven by its overheated melodrama--a not-unpleasant Sirkian rhythm capable of sucking in even the most staunch resister of the genre -- find a receptive audience in the United States, the resulting popularity could signal a revival of the form.

In early seventies Scotland, the pious, defiant, young Bess (Emily Watson) goes against the strict Calvinist teachings of the town elders to marry Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), a strapping worker on the offshore oil rig. Their marriage is solid until, in time, Jan must return to work. A virgin when they wed, the deeply religious Bess is now distraught with physical and spiritual hunger, pleading with God (with whom she carries on a constant prayerful dialogue) to return Jan to her. After a paralyzing accident does just that, Bess begins an agonizing downward spiral from saint to martyr when she struggles to honor Jan's firm request: find lovers, spend time with them, and describe the encounters in detail.

At first horrified, Bess reluctantly agrees, only to draw her faithful sister-in-law Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge, from Mike Leigh's Naked and Milcho Manchevski's Before the Rain) and Jan's doctor (Adrian Rawlins) into her awful quest. The genre demands tragedy, and soon Bess, cast out and humiliated, meets her humiliating fate even as Jan miraculously heals.

For the London-born Watson, her casting was an act of faith on von Trier's part comparable to the choices made by her character, Bess: "The scenes are so emotional, so on the edge, that I had to become swept away by the character's passion and put my trust in Lars that he was guiding us all in the right direction. It's too hard to stand outside Bess and judge her, as an actress. There has to be a commitment to Bess' passion. It's not easy, but it is rewarding." Von Trier concurs. "We had auditions with many young actresses," he remembers, "But as soon as I saw Emily on tape I knew that we had found Bess. Emily has a face that expresses an enormous range of emotion; a face that you can never tire of watching. Many of the scenes demand massive emotional investment. I myself thought it was such a shame for Bess when I wrote this story, but the cast thinks it's even more of a shame. The lassies who play Bess and Dodo invest an enormous amount in the film, an enormous amount. They are wretched all day long if they have to do a sad scene at the end of the afternoon. At the same time it's cops and robbers with feeling, and actually we're having a load of laughs." Incredibly, in a career that now numbers five features in 12 years, Breaking the Waves is von Trier's first film in English.

"Though it feels like a stunt," no less a cultural bellwether than Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide says of the visually arresting Zentropa, "this is a rare contemporary movie that makes one feel privy to the reinvention of cinema." Although the subject and style are light years away from that film, much the same is true of Breaking the Waves: von Trier has such a command of the medium that what should be (and may well have been) a technical nightmare plays effortlessly. Photographed by the great Robby Muller with a widescreen, handheld camera strongly reminiscent to American television viewers of Jean de Segonzac's work on Homicide: Life on the Street, the film has also been bleached of much of its color. While jarring at first, the vertiginous, almost sepia mise-en-scène, combined with the tension between Watson's florid acting and everyone else's naturalistic style transports viewers to a world where everything is simultaneously identifiable and completely different. Add to this the hyperreal panoramas that break up the film into chapters and the familiar yet almost absurdly out-of-place period songs (by Mott the Hoople, T. Rex, Thin Lizzy, Elton John and others) and the cumulative effect is of profound dislocation, as if watching melodrama made by another civilization.

Given the story's melodramatic roots, that otherworldly feel is just as well. "The strength of my films is that they are easy to mock, and that's how it should be," von Trier told an interviewer during location filming in Scotland. " I have a lot of respect for people you can mock." The conversation, reprinted by the film's American distributor in the domestic presskit, reveals a kinder, gentler filmmaker at peace with himself and completely focussed on the demands and rigors of filmmaking: "I think my strength is that I am so madly convinced of the qualities in what I do."

Not everyone is. The film von Trier made between Zentropa and Breaking the Waves, The Kingdom, is a maddening and derivative opus made for Danish television on the mystical doings in a Stockholm hospital that uses many of the same filmmaking techniques as his new work but feels for all the world like a tedious retread and blending of Twin Peaks with E.R. And at four and a half hours, it is an unpleasant reminder of a bizarre subgenre in which foreign television serials are spliced together for the American art-house market. Call it the Cinema of Endurance.

Yet many of the qualities that make The Kingdom virtually unendurable are, in Breaking the Waves, virtues. Von Trier himself admits that "the philosophy for my other films has been 'Evil Exists.' The philosophy for this one is 'Goodness Exists.'" Despite Bess' ultimate sacrifice, von Trier is adamant about the film's ultimate message: "There are no bad guys, only misunderstandings." Faithfull to vintage melodrama yet presented in a new and memorable way, Breaking the Waves is a love story of substance, craft and lasting impact.

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